After her author debut last year, Houstonian Ashley Winstead is bookending her summer with two new releases — two books that couldn’t be any more different.
Last year, Winstead published In My Dreams I Hold A Knife with publisher Sourcebooks Landmark. The dark academia novel follows a group of friends returning to their alma mater with fresh questions about what happened in the murder of a classmate.
Her next thriller, The Last Housewife, which follows a Dallas woman’s obsession over getting to the bottom of two of her former friends’ deaths in the Hudson Valley region, comes out August 16.
Winstead says the upcoming title is her darkest yet — completely contrasting with her last release, Fool Me Once, which was published in April by Harlequin Romance. The romcom novel is set in Austin and is full of sexual tension, political shenanigans, and messy, but lovable, characters.
Though her books fall on separate sides of the fiction genre spectrum, each novel features rich plots, smart writing, and, in the case of her two 2022 releases, a bit of Texas sprinkled in. CultureMap sat down with Winstead to discuss her writing career and her three completed books.
The Winstead File
Family: Husband and two furry felines
Neighborhood: The Heights
Hometown: “I’m a Navy kid, so a bit of everywhere. I usually say California. Texan since… 2010. Spent six years in Dallas before moving to Houston in 2016.
Most frequented Houston restaurant: Squable
Favorite Houston bookstore: Murder By The Book — catch her there at 6:30 pm Thursday, May 19 in discussion with fellow author May Cobb.
CultureMap: You’re a rising star in the literary world. Did you always want to be an author?
Ashley Winstead: Absolutely. Like throw me in the camp with pretty much every other writer who feels like they're born to do it. I was attracted to language since I was really young.
I have a very vivid memory of being seven years old or around that age and getting like an assignment from a teacher to write probably a paragraph of creative writing about a ship crashing on the shore or something. And I remember spending hours pacing my room, thinking about different ways I could phrase a single sentence and falling in love with like the musicality of language — thinking if I use certain words, could that mimic the sound of waves crashing.
I was a goner from the start. In fact, I thought I wanted to be a poet and went to college to be a poet — so, you know, one of five people in America — and quickly learned that was not gonna be the path for me. It’s been a long journey, but yeah, always, always.
CM: Before becoming a full-time author, you worked with Arnold Ventures. What did you do there and how did that job inspire aspects of Fool Me Once’s main character, Lee Stone?
AW: I stole very blatantly from my work there. I worked at Arnold Ventures as a communications director — kind of exactly what Lee does for her company. And Arnold is a national philanthropy that works really hard to change policy to be more effective at helping people improve their lives.
We worked on climate change policy, criminal justice reform, reproductive rights, justice, education — just like really a wide variety of topics. I had to become extremely knowledgeable, particularly about what the research said about policies and the political landscapes of almost every state across the country but in particular, Texas, cause we worked really closely here.
For the five years that I worked at Arnold, I was behind the scenes with a mix of activists researchers, politicians, and government folks, trying to figure out what new policies made sense would be effective and then trying to campaign to get them passed. I saw so many things behind the scenes, as you can only imagine, especially here in Texas, which was by far the most bananas behind the scenes politically — the schemes, the shenanigans of politicians in Austin.
I was lucky enough to get to go up to Austin and to the Capitol a few times and talk to the chief judge about criminal justice reform and do a lot of advocacy related stuff. And I just kept thinking, "this would make such excellent fodder for a comedy." I could lift real life things — I didn't for liable purposes or whatnot, but I really could have — and people probably would've said it was too far fetched.
I also knew that Lee was a person who was really passionate about changing the world and that would be like a central conflict for her — that she would be so eager to change the world for the better and completely blind about the ways she needed to change.
CM: What’s it like writing books set in Texas?
AW: I haven't fully interrogated why it took me so long to write a book set in the place where I live. Granted, Fool Me Once is in Austin, but still in Texas. I think I needed to be persuaded that people would be interested in reading like a romantic comedy set in Texas. And I know that sounds weird. And people might bristle at that, but Texas has such a challenging reputation outside the borders of the state.
People look at us and see this legislatively backwards, toxic place — and I think very accurately. What they don't see — and why I was really principally motivated to set Fool Me Once in Texas — is just the huge movement of people working so hard in Texas to change things like advocates and people who will spend their entire lives fighting for progressive policy in Texas and fighting for people who are vulnerable here in Texas.
Fool Me Once is kind of my love letter to a part of Texas that is really vital and really alive. It's my Texas, and one that people don't really see outside the border.
When you set a book in Texas, you are bringing baggage to it in a way that you're not setting it in places like New York or California — even though they have their own political ecosystems, they're usual places for books to be set. They're a little more neutral and when you write in a book set in Texas, it's colored deeply by the setting.
CM: What should people expect from The Last Housewife, your next book, which comes out August 16? How does it compare to your first thriller, In My Dreams I Hold a Knife?
AW: First and foremost, it is not the soapy popcorn-esque tone of In My Dreams I Hold a Knife. I'm taking pains to warn people that it's very, very dark and very graphic on page. Please look at the trigger warnings and take them very seriously.
But, what you can expect in terms of story, is the story is I'm most proud of writing I think to date. It is about a woman named Shay and she lives in Highland Park in Dallas. She's a newly married Highland Park wife, and she should be writing her first book with her free time, but instead she's lounging by her pool and going to lunch with the other Highland Park wives.
She feels really empty and she can't figure out why it is that she is so uninspired to write this thing she's been wanting to do her whole life. Lying by the pool one day, she puts on her favorite true crime podcast and finds out unceremoniously that her best friend from college has been found dead under highly suspicious circumstances.
And this just opens up so many questions because the way her friend's body was found actually mirrors the way another woman's body was found eight years ago on their college campus. But she's the only person in the world who knows that.
So she's sitting in Highland Park thinking to herself, 'like if I don't do something with this knowledge, you know, what's gonna happen?' So then, she flies to New York. The principal action of the book takes place in the Hudson Valley area of New York, but it's shot through with Texas as well. I'm calling it my cult revenge thriller — it's Eyes Wide Shut meets Promising Young Woman.
CM: You write two very different genres — how do you balance both the thriller and the rom-com sides of your brain? Where do you find inspiration for each?
AW: I don't know that I balance it very well, to be completely honest, because there's always one genre kind of creeping into the other one. I have to go back and slap myself on the wrist when I'm being too joyous or romantic in a thriller or too tense, fast-paced, or clipped in a romance.
Right now, for example, I'm writing three different books at the same time and it's a little too much for my brain to handle. My agent told me that I need to put down my thriller that I'm working on and switch to my next romance. I think it's gonna take me a full week to fully shake off the thriller.
I don't know if that's a very good answer — it is a struggle, but it is the most intoxicating way to write. I highly recommend it. I am a writer who sinks so fully, mentally, and emotionally into whatever I'm writing that I actually need the break of switching to a different genre to not like lose my brain completely.
When I'm writing a thriller, I am so deep in the drama and the angst and the fear that I'm like a weird person to be around really — my poor husband. And when I'm in a romance, I'm like unfailingly cheery and making jokes all the time, which is probably more obnoxious than the thriller version of myself.
And when I'm done writing a romance, I'm like, 'oh, this is so wonderful,' sinking back into like the drama.
CM: Do you do any writing around town? If so, what types of places do you like to work at?
AW: My other writer friends here in Houston know to tip me off to mostly bars where it's kind of a sleepier atmosphere. Somewhere you could start out with a coffee and then kind of gradually move through the beverages of the day until you're ending with wine. Somewhere quieter, sleepy, but where you can watch people. I get a lot of ideas just watching people.
Ashley Winstead will discuss her books and career with fellow author May Cobb at Murder By The Book, 2342 Bissonnet St. For more information, visit Murder By the Book online.